Philip Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937. His father was a record salesman and repaired radios, and these family careers introduced the young Philip Glass to music. However he initially studied Mathematics at the University of Chicago before switching to music at the Julliard School. His musical education was then quite conventional and included a period of study at the Paris Conservatoire with Nadia Boulanger. Then a job transcribing the music of Ravi Shankar seemed to be a turning point for the Glass, and the composer then went on to explore his own experimental path and founded the Philip Glass Ensemble to perform his creations. As a confirmed member of the Avant Guarde, his music was more often played in clubs and art venues than in the concert hall. Mainstream recognition has taken time to develop but it has now arrived and the composer's reputation is now firm among musicians and audiences alike. He has written concert works for a variety of orchestral forces from solo instruments up to orchestral symphonies. His style clearly defines him as a modern composer and, along with John Cage and others, his work received some attention in the book "Experimental Music" by Michael Nyman. The relationship between the two composers goes deeper than this, because in some ways Glass was a leading light in the minimalist movement which was documented and named by Nyman before he himself became a practicing minimalist. Another curious coincidence (or is it?) is that the director Peter Greenaway created the documentary series "Four American Composers", one of whom was Philip Glass. Greenaway's film music is invariably scored by none other than Michael Nyman.
If you are accustomed to traditional film music, the simplicity of Glass's music may at first come as a shock. Yet give it a few minutes and it will creep into you. The music is frequently built from a progression of chords which would not be out of place in music from the Baroque or Classical periods. Those chords are broken up and arpeggiated or simply suggested by repeated notes, and the resulting passage is repeated in sections sometimes introducing different forms of variation. The orchestration is frequently stark with only a few instruments laying the whole construction very open and exposed. Glass is also noted for his musical embracing of influences beyond the classical world. He has frequently collaborated with other composers and musicians, and through them incorporated ideas and instruments from both pop music and world music. He has worked with David Bowie and his early introduction to the music of Ravi Shankar has forged a particularly close relationship with the music of India and Tibet. This relationship is emphasised by his Buddhist faith and support of the oppressed Tibetan people. Glass is part of a team which organises the annual Tibet House Freedom Gig in New York, since China has banned the traditional festival on Tibetan soil.
Glass was attracted to the "Candyman" film by the director's original concept of a film based on the Clive Barker story. It was to explore urban mythology in a unique way while avoiding horror cliches. Glass's thinking seems to be embodied in the orchestration, where an organ gives a gothic undertone and voices lend the psychological twist. There is a music box theme which in disembodied form haunts the rest of the score. Glass wasn't pleased when the director was replaced on the project and the film became more of a traditional "blood and gore" movie. Yet he was persuaded to provide some new tracks for the sequel "Farewell to the Flesh" which also re-used some of the first film's music. There was then sufficient material for a soundtrack release which is now available. Having thus gained experience in film work and with his Tibetan links, Glass was the perfect choice to score the movie "Kundun", the Martin Scorcese movie about the early life of the Dalai Lama. The music for this provides spiritual atmosphere to accompany story-telling which is moving without being overtly emotional. The instrumentation includes a number of wind instruments and oriental cymbals.
Another example of film scoring for reduced instrumental forces (in this case a classical String Quartet) is his re-scoring of the original "Dracula" film starring Bela Lugosi. In this case, the restricted string timbre seems to perfectly complement the black and white images, and it's tempting to compare this decision with Bernard Herrmann's string orchestra on Psycho. Much of the music for "Dracula" consists of repeated figures such as arpeggios which sometimes serve as accompaniment to a simple melodic line, though the music breaks into counterpoint for the Death of Dracula near the end of the movie. It is interesting to compare Glass's approach with that of James Bernard who, after a long association with the Hammer Dracula films, put together a new soundtrack for the original "Nosferatu" from 1921.
Glass himself appears in a few documentary films and he made a cameo appearance in the film "Being John Malkovich". His music also occasionally makes its own cameo appearances in films, an unexpected one being the cult film "Suspiria" (which itself has an hypnotic soundtrack played by Italian group "Goblins"). For "The Truman Show", which has original music by Burkhard Dallwitz, director Peter Weir considered that the TV programme within the movie would largely be scored using existing stock music. Among a number of older classical pieces, he also selected several Glass works for this purpose including music from "Powaqqatsi", "Anima Mundi" and "Mishima", though some specially composed tracks were also provided for the film allowing Glass to receive a screen credit for "Additional Original Music" and appear briefly in a cameo. Dallwitz and Glass were jointly awarded with a Golden Globe for the score.
The three films, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi represent a extraordinarily unique style of visual film making which seems to lend itself to the style of music associated with Glass. The titles come from the Hopi language and collectively are known as the "qatsi" trilogy. Since the films have been made over 2 decades, it is also interesting to note changes in Glass' style of composition. Although this could be put down to matching the music to the content of the films, it is tempting to consider that all the artists have developed both their technique and artistic language over those intervening years, including director Godfrey Reggio. "Koyaanisqatsi" is played by the Philip Glass ensemble plus organ and voices, and they originally played live to the film while it was shown in various venues. The Ensemble has some similarities in composition to the Michael Nyman Band who have also at times played live to film. Twenty years later for "Naqoyqatsi", although the film itself might suggest synthesised sounds to match its images, Glass chose a contrasting sound using a band of orchestral proportions playing a more refined organic sound accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma's solo cello. (Yo-Yo Ma is also well known from the soundtrack to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" by Tan Dun.) Despite these differences, all three films and their soundtracks are recogniseably from the same family with each film's title sung by deep voices in the title track. Some of the music from the qatsi trilogy have had a profound influence on popular culture, a prime example being the use of the "Pruit Igoe" track for the trailer to the game "Grand Theft Auto IV".
One of Glass's more recent film project is The Hours. The music lays a single foundation for the different plot strands, underlining the common elements without focussing too deeply on a single story. Most of the time the music simply provides a background mood which reflects the intensity of on-screen emotions without particularly taking sides or becoming sentimental. Then there are times when the music synchronises subtly with some activity of the characters, drawing the viewer in to various details and heightening the importance of cross-plot relationships. As the characters try to cope with their own situations and contemplate suicide, the music is the only constant across the different time periods and underlines the universality of the human condition. The soundtrack consists mostly of new music written by Glass for the film, but also his existing "Metamorphosis 2" for piano solo (which incidentally is also the title of a work by the artist M. C. Escher) and "Satyagraha", and an extract from Richard Strauss's "Beim Schlafengehen" from his "Last Four Songs". The Hours soundtrack is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and we can also recommend the DVD (at these links: Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk) which contains a seven minute feature "The Music of The Hours" with Philip Glass and the others commenting on the thinking behind the soundtrack and its development.
Glass's film music seems to go from strength to strength, and he would seem to be many filmmakers' composer of choice for character-driven dramas. Two very different films released in 2006 include The Illusionist and Notes on a Scandal, both enjoyable in their own right but greatly enriched by the music of Philip Glass. A documentary film about Philip Glass was recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival. This was made by Scott Hicks who also directed the film "Shine" about the pianist David Helfgott. The film is called "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts" and it is now available on DVD including a 2 disc set with extra interview and performance material at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Philip Glass has completed his 9th Symphony as per Beethoven and several other classical composers, although this milestone figure made some composers such as Mahler superstitious.
Among several Philip Glass film soundtracks we can recommend the ethereal music from "Kundun" available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Also available from these sources is "The Music from Candyman" at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and "The Hours" from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. See also our reviews of the Qatsi Trilogy - Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi - for links to various versions of these soundtracks and DVD offers of the films they were written to accompany. There are also many recordings available of his concert and chamber output. It was only a matter of time before music by John Cage and Philip Glass were paired under the inviting title of "Glass Cage". Such an album of piano music is now available, for example at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Many of Glass's works are also available in Sheet Music format, including items for different musical forces such as solo piano or string quartet. Singers may find something of interest in his "Songs from Liquid Days" which can be found at The Music Room, whereas pianists may wish to try a piano arrangement of his music from the film The Hours, also from The Music Room.
For web-sites giving an insight into this the composer, we suggest the dedicated Philip Glass web-site (the "Glass Engine" on this is truly amazing - you could lose yourself for hours listening to his music which can be selected in different orders and by different criteria - highly recommended!), the Tibet House and also the Qatsi site. Last year (2005) Glass lent his support to the Bang on a Can music group's "People's Commissioning Fund Concert".
See our review of Philip Glass in Concert for other recommendations, particular the album "Solo Piano" for which there is also sheet music available.